Monday, July 19, 2021

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood A Novel - Review

"If I really considered myself a writer, I wouldn't be writing screenplays. I'd be writing novels."

- Quentin Tarantino

I was mostly disappointed with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the Movie. I thought the Col wrote a really accurate review of the film. I was hoping for more from the Novel in a couple of key areas. More on Cliff, more on Sharon, and more Manson. Although the Novel did provide me with all three, it was not exactly what I had in mind. Only with Sharon do I feel he hit the spot on what I was looking for. While there was more Manson, and we learned much more about Cliff, I was left disappointed with how he addressed both in the book. As this is a Manson Blog - lets start there.

Tarantino took a strange track with the Family in the novel. There is more of the Family and Charlie in the novel than the movie, but they also play a less significant role if that makes sense? The ending of the movie is mentioned only briefly in a flashback type sequence about 110 pages into a 400 page book. It is remembered as an anecdote from one person to another. It is covered in two pages, and Tarantino gives as much detail about what the results of the killings were, as he does recounting the actual killing. We learn that the event caused Rick to get regular spots on the Johnny Carson Show, among other short-term appearance opportunities. Also, the Family is last mentioned with about a quarter of the Novel left, and they are essentially finished for the rest of the story. There are a couple more scenes with Charlie than in the movie, including a face to face with Sharon and Jay. As well, there is an interesting chapter with the Pussycat character where Tarantino gives us his spooky version of a creepy crawl mission that Pussycat goes on in an initiation event. Tarantino also takes a deep dive into Charlies music career ambitions. The Spahn Ranch scene from the movie is in the book, though slightly altered. Cliff leaves at the end without beating up Clem or anyone else. You also get that visit from Squeaky's point of view. However, much like the movie, the Manson Family is really not at the heart of the story Quentin is trying to tell here. Going into this Novel looking for a Manson story is going to leave you disappointed much in the same way the movie did. Albeit maybe a little less so, if you looking for more Manson content and are willing to sacrifice Manson relevance.

My favorite character in the movie was Cliff Booth. I wanted the Novel to clear up some things about his background for me, and I got way more than I bargained for. Cliff, it turns out, is a much darker guy. We learn how Cliff and Rick met, with Cliff saving Rick from an on-set fire. Cliff seems to have a very strange affinity for Rick, but outside of that it just gets worse and worse as far as Cliff's character. We find out that Cliff did indeed kill his wife on that boat. In a typically Tarantino violence on woman way, we are walked through how she was shot through the middle with a spear-gun. The back story on this event is very detailed and very gory. We discover that Cliff killed more people than any other US soldier in the War, and that he received medals of valor for his performance. We also are told that he continued to kill people after the war, in once instance just to see if he could get away with it. Cliff is also a foreign film buff and a critic of US films. He prefers the work of a Japanese film maker named Kurosawa. Everyone in this Novel has an opinion on film and music it seems. but more on that later. We see how Cliff came into possession of the beloved pit-bull which was given to him to pay off a debt. Cliff is clearly an old-school tough guy, but is given much rougher edges in the book than he was portrayed as having in the movie. In the book, Tarantino explains in the fight scene with Bruce Lee that Bruce is able to identify in Cliff's eyes that Cliff is different from other opponents. Bruce recognizes Cliff is a killer. This Novel makes sure that you understand that about Cliff. He is not the smiling charming buddy of the film. When I saw the movie I felt like the Cliff character was, if not a hero, at the very least a loyal friend and good type of guy. After reading the Novel, I feel like Cliff is more like some of the other villains in some of the other Tarantino movies. Think the Vega brothers. Cold. Lots of wit and one-liners, but ultimately capable of being very cold.

Then there is Sharon. The one area of this book that was exactly as I hoped was the treatment of Sharon. She gets more attention and focus and I loved it. We get to hear her voice and she had some very interesting things to say. Sharon liked pop music more than Rock. Sharon was a Monkees fan. Sharon liked Bobby Sherman lol ( Remember that old song - "Julie , Julie, Julie, do you love me") Sharon does not like the playboy mansion parties or scene, and in fact the scene from the Movie where Sharon and Roman are at the party at the Mansion is written out. At the end of the Novel, Sharon is on her way to one of the Mansion Parties when she talks Roman into having a pool party at their place instead. Sharon is given a chance to express things she could never tell her "hip friends", and she comes across in the novel as very sincere and endearing. As does one other female character....

Remember Trudy? The 9 year old girl who Rick acted with in the episode of Lancers? Well, Trudy is also at the very heart of this novel. Trudy and Rick have an almost love-hate type of relationship in this Novel. In fact, the Novel ends with a conversation not between Rick and Cliff, but with Rick and Trudy. We learn here that Trudy would go on to much bigger things. Trudy would eventually be nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the film Ordinary People, and would go on to win the Academy Award for her performance in a Quentin Tarantino1999 remake of "Lady in Red." 

The novel opens up with a chapter reliving the conversation Rick has with Marvin Schwarz. Although in the book its not at a restaurant, it is in an office setting. I have read that Tarantino is also having this story turned into a play. The plot of the play would be centered around Rick's time in Italy. I have also read that Tarantino signed a two book deal. In addition to this Novel, he will be releasing a book for reviews, or critiquing films. That makes sense as there was plenty of that going on in this book. All the main characters had something to say about different films. Most likely Tarantino speaking for himself through his characters. Quentin clearly heard the criticism about Sharon's lack of a voice and adjusted for the better. If he heard the criticism about his portrayal of Bruce Lee, he apparently couldn't care less. Bruce is portrayed very poorly. There are plenty of references to all things Quentin. He references his other movies, people who have worked with him in the past, as well as his favorite characters and works. I had to laugh when one of the Manson girls called Cliff- "Mr. White." Quentin went into lots of detail about Lancer, and Jim Stacy. In one nod to himself, he even had a scene where a character based on his father runs into Stacy and asks him to sign an autograph for his son "Quentin."  There is lot's of nostalgia. The book itself looks like one of the old paperbacks you buy on a spindle while waiting on line at the convenience store. The last couple of pages are adds for old Elmore Leonard, and Western novels. There are probably so many things going on as well that are just above my head. Tarantino references so many people, songs, and shows from an era that was simply before my time. All for the low cost of eight bucks lol. Hell, How can you go wrong for that? It was an interesting read, and it only took a couple of afternoons at the pool to read it. One or two of the scenes are verbatim from the movie, but mostly it is Tarantino going into very serious detail about the films, music, and television shows he grew up with. It was not very fulfilling to me as far as the Manson stuff, and I walked away feeling disappointed about Cliff. I am not sure that personally I need to see a play. I was intrigued with the story of Rick. Cliff, and how they crossed paths with both Sharon and Charlie. I am not so sure how interested I am in the rest of it. It had a tendency, in parts, to get too preachy. You sort of walk away from this Novel with a feeling that you have just spent several hours listening to a lecture on the merits/shortcomings of certain work that is sometimes very obscure to an average person. He goes way into description of process and technique in some cases. It can work sometimes, like when describing Roman Polanski's way of filming frame by frame to develop suspense in Rosemary's Baby. It can also get tedious reading an entire Chapter about the History of Stacy and Lancer. 

Overall, I think this Novel is a decent supplement to the story when Tarantino is not spending too many pages on the most technical and mundane details of certain processes and backstories. I recommend this book if you liked the movie. It is a quick read for the most-part, and very cheap. If you are really into Quentin Tarantino, you will probably like this more than I did. There are many obvious references to his personal interests, so I am sure there are plenty of not-so obvious ones as well for the die-hard fans. I respect Tarantino, but never got that into him either. I think Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs were great movies. I think he made two other really good ones, and I put Once Upon a Time in Hollywood somewhere after that in my personal rankings of Quentin's work with the rest of them. I didn't love the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood movie, and the character I liked most in the movie was ruined in the Novel. But, it was fun in parts and I am not sorry I spent the time reading it. Bottom line:

Scale of 1 to 10 Coors-lights:  6 pack...

- Your Favorite Saint


jempud said...

Thanks for this post, St. C. It's always good to hear other people's opinions, more so when there's a little underpinning beneath them. At the end of the day, it’s always going to be a personal matter how we rate QT as a director, how we rate individual films of his and how we see the relevance of his work to our interest in Manson.

To take the last of these first, I think there is a potential danger of underrating this movie because it didn’t address the issues we would like to have seen addressed, or at least not in the way we would have wanted. But the film is the Director’s vision; he made the film he wanted to, and it can only be judged for what it is, not for what it isn’t. Personally, I think it’s a fine film, one that fits in well with the trajectory of his oeuvre, and only tangentially related to the real events of Manson and his followers, or to what we see as the ‘real events’. Why does it need to be, for Tarantino’spurpose.

So, I’ll leave that aside. QT is something of a maverick director, and his films are not for everyone. We are a mixed bunch on this forum, united in our interest in the ‘real events’ I alluded to above, but probably little else. We are likely to have a wide range of reactions to and opinions about his films, and that is to be expected. As I used to tell my children (and now my grandchildren) there are no ‘good’ films or ‘bad’ films – these are value judgments. We can, however, say that there are films we like, and films we don’t like, citing reasons. St. C has done that – would that others followed his example.

However, in terms of Film Criticism, there are bodies respected by their peers whose opinions are generally accepted. We will all have our favourite reviewers. I have long followed Roger Ebert (US) until he died, and Mark Kermode (UK) who is fortunately still with us. I also read ‘Sight and Sound’, a publication of the British Film Institute, for its reviews. Agreed, odd that a Patagonian duck would read British publications but there are ancestral reasons. Anyway, from these and other readings I deduce that, like Polanski, QT is a highly respected director among film buffs if not by the general public.

Of course, filmgoers go to the movies with different expectation. If I take my kids to see a Transformers movie I don’t expect the same intellectual investment as when I watch an introspective black and white 1960s Swedish movie. Horses for courses. The point here, I think, is that directors make different kind of films, for different reasons and for different audiences. QT has made the film St. C is discussing here. The film exists. We can express our opinions as to what we feel about it but we cannot complain that he failed to make the film we wanted to see. For that, we have to make our own film.

jempud said...

I realise I failed to address the novel - this is for the simple reason that I have nit [yet] read it. I shall, in time.

Doug said...

The Colonel will be pleased to hear that you mentioned/possibly saw his Transformers film(s)!

I enjoyed reading your thoughts jempud!

jempud said...

I fear [for historical reasons] that the Colonel has as low an opinion of me as I have of the 'Transformers' series, but again these are value judgments. I would say, though, that as I said earlier they are made for a different market to QT's intended viewers.

kraut_iznota_knotsy said...

It needs more feet.

ColScott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ColScott said...

HI Jempud. I do not have any opinion of you low or otherwise you are just a name on the internet.

The main thrust of the film is a middle aged TV actor whining that the industry is passing him by. This is of no interest to me.

I am fucking fascinated though that QT decided to base much of the book and movie around James Stacy an actual, really life honest to god Child Molester. Why?

Imagine making a film that elevates a forgotten kiddie fiddler while attacking Bruce Lee. So odd.

brownrice said...

Speaking of which...

brownrice said...

There was an Australian film director in the early 70s (Sandy Harbutt) who made Australia’s only biker film (Stone). It was a big hit locally at the time but Sandy was a bit of a maverick, didn’t suck up to the local industry and (despite the box office success of Stone) he never got to make another film. Years later (after Stone had gone on to become a bit of a cult classic), Tarantino came to Australia. Turns out he was a huge fan of Stone (and many other early 70s Ozzie films… particularly the violent shlock ones). He tracked down Sandy and offered to help him. His first offer was to take Sandy down to some industry event in Melbourne where QT was gonna be the star and walk him down the red carpet into the event. This would have been a massive “fuck you” to the industry that had effectively black-balled Sandy and could have led to all sorts of new professional opportunities for him… but Sandy turned him down. When asked why he’d ignored his second “big chance”, his only response was “Yeah, but then I’d have to hang out with the guy”. Says a lot really… :-)

Dan S said...

Very interesting comments and great discussion starters to the saint. Reminds me I'm here for more than laughing at trolls (D. intended).

Never knew about the pedo guy portrayed in the kicker but that has to be on purpose. Surely it's an indictment on that culture or at least a pointed attempt to draw attention to it.

Why is TCAP so entertaining?

Peter said...

"Through the film language Tarantino chose, he forces the audience to visually desire teenage bodies"

Ow! Don't twist my arm so hard.

Doug said...

Thanks for the link. Caught me a bit off guard that Stacy is the authour's great uncle...I knew Stacy was a creep

jempud said...

Col Scott dice:

The main thrust of the film is a middle aged TV actor whining that the industry is passing him by. This is of no interest to me.

Well, you’re the guy in the film industry, not me. But for what it’s worth, I’ll give you my take.

The name of the film tells us a lot – it recalls those Sergio Leone movies which play with historical events much as QT does. Leone’s films were an attempt to capture a time that never really existed, a time when memories, real life, imagination and the movies themselves (Hollywood) could coalesce. So, we’re watching a wistful, dreamy and imaginative (fetishist, even) snapshot of the movie business in Hollywood in the second half of the 1960s, longing for an America that no longer exists and, in many ways, never did. The ‘middle aged TV actor’ (Dalton) is part of this, but just a part, as is Cliff – I would in fact argue that Cliff, with the uncertainty of just what he has done backstory and the violent behaviour of his that ensues, plays a more central part than Dalton, but then for the film to work again the one needs the other.

QT claims to have learned his craft from watching movies, and it shows. Look at Cliff driving his old blue convertible across LA and you can see Thomas (David Hemmings) driving his Rolls convertible across London in Antonioni’s “Blow-up.” Margot Robbie’s Tate dancing in the Playboy mansion, is one of Fellini’s women (Eckberg, Loren) dancing in the Rome pre-dawn and her twin love interests echo any of Bertolucci’s movies. Tarantino acknowledges these and other homages and all his films are packed with them, but more so in this film as it is about the movie industry.

‘Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood’ is on the surface a 1969 buddy movie with Manson Family connections, but it’s about so much more. It is a glorious evocation [and homage] to a particular period of history, almost a time capsule (as Col Scott points out, produced or reproduced to perfection). It incorporates as background but not just background -as you would expect of QT – songs, jingles, contemporary commercial products and businesses, paraphernalia, an entire ‘cornucopia of kitsch’.

And of course, it’s a Western too, of sorts. Hence Dalton’s film career, the Spahn Ranch, the “Nebraska Jim” Spaghetti Western episode - these give QT yet another chance to show off his love for the movies, right the way down to parodies of known or imaginary genres and beautifully gaudy posters.

This is not the place for a full review of this movie (we might for instance look at QT’s crosscutting between original film, original film with characters replaced or inserted, and faux film – masterful, if at times disconcerting), and even what I have written here is perhaps of little interest to many here. But I did feel that the movie needs a little defending such a dismissive comment (no offense intended to Col Scott). Thanks for your time.

Mr. Humphrat said...

Just listening to QT on Joe Rogen and he explains that with Bruce Lee, the stuntmen on Green Hornet didn't like working with him because he wanted to make it look real and would hit them harder than he should have, and he didn't have a high enough regard for American stuntmen. Also, Cliff tricked him by letting him win the first round and figuring he would use the same move the second time, which he did. Also, QT says it's in the book that Lee could see in Cliff's eyes that he was a killer and his instinct was to kill.

Gene Aquamarine said...

After my first "Once Upon A Time in Hollywood" viewing, I liked it for its style, but was initially disappointed, feeling that Tarantino was holding back quite a bit with some of the TLB connections and theories he might have wanted to put on the screen. This film was created while the "Me Too" movement was gaining traction / peaking in Hollywood, and at the time of production there were stories going around in the media about not only the Weinstein connections but also Tarantino's muse Uma Thurman sustaining injuries on set, during a driving-related stunt for Kill Bill 2.

At the same time I remember hearing that Tarantino was in discussions with the Tate family regarding Sharon's portrayal on screen in a big movie like this. Quentin didn't want to be accused of exploiting Sharon's death. I feel that in order to prevent potential 'exploitation' accusations, he went hard in the other direction, making the film a fantastical love letter to Sharon Tate, her skills and attributes. Curiously absent in the film is any mention of the occult horror film "Eye of the Devil" (1966) , which features Tate's first speaking role in a film, and was was originally to star Kim Novak. This film and its legacy is something that film scholar QT undoubtedly knows quite a bit about, but it seems to me that a decision was made to not "go there", and make too much of the occult dabblings of Tate and her handlers. Tarantino instead focuses on the lighthearted "Wrecking Crew" film,which puts Tate in an entirely more favorable, relatable light.

Even though I feelTarantino is pulling his punches in this film, there are some little bombshells that don't really explode on screen, but are simmering nonetheless. One example is when the Steve McQueen character is explaining the romantic triangle of Tate/Polanski/ Sebring, and a female partygoer makes the comment that Sharon seems to only be attracted to men who "look like 12 year old boys". This is a moment that doesn't get followed up on, QT just sort of sets it there for our consideration.

Now that I've seen the movie about 5 times, I'm noticing the theme of "discipline" throughout the film. The most striking example is the sequence where Cliff is feeding Brandy the Dog, and the dog is so well-disciplined she won't eat or even go near the bowl until the command is given from Cliff. This is the same disciplined behavior that will help Cliff and Brandy attack and defeat the Manson Family killers who arrive at the end of the film. Tarantino loves disciplined actors, gangsters, stuntmen, etc. Even though he may have a few sympathies for some of the counter-cultural messages from the 60s-era "hippie" movement , the lack of discipline on the longhairs' part seems to be one of the things that most deeply offends Tarantino.